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‘Pop South Asia: Artistic Explorations in the Popular’ is one of the first major exhibitions to provide a substantial survey of modern and contemporary art from South Asia engaging with popular culture.

Artists address complex issues facing the self and society and the exhibition is suffused with irony, humour, play, colour, and sensory pleasure. The show is layered with historical, social, political and cultural references. Breaking away from the commonly perceived western context, this survey provides opportunities to deepen dialogue and exchanges on a South Asian level. 

The exhibition at the Al Mureijah Art Spaces is curated in 4 gallery spaces under the themes Local Capitalism and Print Culture; Cinema and Mediatised Icons; Tradition and Everday Practices: A Retake; Politics, Protest, Borders, Partitions; Modernity and Urbanism; Utopia and Dystopia; Self, Identity, Diaspora. The timeline of works exhibited spans the period from the mid-twentieth century to the present. While the exhibition presents a diverse range of techniques, references and perspectives, there are touchpoints, from the cultural to the experiential, where visual conversations and ideas are simultaneously explored, bridging chasms of medium, geography and generations. The extensive exhibition consists of more than 100 artworks by artists from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the diaspora.

The exhibition spotlights artists who intervene in the aesthetics of print, cinematic and digital media alongside those engaging with devotional practices, crafts and folk culture; it presents artists addressing modes of local capitalism, from large-scale industries to vernacular ‘bazaars’, in company with those commenting on identity, politics and borders.

Expanding the conventional canon of Pop Art, understood in the Western context primarily as art that addresses consumer culture and the media image, the exhibition foregrounds multiple layers and ideas embedded within the ‘popular’ in South Asia. This expansive exhibition recontextualizes the history of Pop art in the context of South Asia; bringing to light knowledge and research relevant not only to South Asia but also to parallel regions across the world, equally shaped by forces of capitalism and media as they continue to modernise and urbanise.

The exhibition includes works by Abdul Halik Azeez, Ahmed Ali Manganhar, Anant Joshi, Anwar Saeed, Atul Dodiya, Ayesha Jatoi, Baseera Khan, Bharti Kher, Bhupen Khakhar, C. K. Rajan, Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Chila Kumari Burman, Chitra Ganesh, Dhali Al Mamoon, G. Ravinder Reddy, Hangama Amiri, Jeanno Gaussi, K. M. Madhusudhanan, K. G. Subramanyan, Lala Rukh, L. N. Tallur, Lubna Chowdhary, Maligawage Sarlis, Mehreen Murtaza, M. F. Husain, Mian Ijaz ul Hassan, Muvindu Binoy, Naiza Khan, Pushpamala N, Raja Ravi Varma, Ram Rahman, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Saba Khan, Samsul Alam Helal, Seema Nusrat, Seher Naveed, Seher Shah, Shishir Bhattacharjee, Sunil Gupta, Tejal Shah, Thukral & Tagra, Tsherin Sherpa and Vivan Sundaram.

Atul Dodiya, Gabbar on Gamboge, 1997. Oil, acrylic, marble dust, charcoal on canvas. Photographer: Suzette Bell-Roberts

The exhibition opens with Atul Dodiya’s painting Gabbar on Gamboge, a homage to Bollywood cinema’s iconic villain, Gabbar Singh, from the 1975 blockbuster Sholay. Dodiya’s playfulness with visual narratives is expressed in the artwork’s pastiche of popular cultural references. In the painting, Singh is depicted as a villain character showing violence and death from the movie, and the children praying symbolises an innocent prayer as opposed to the public who praised the film despite violent scenes.

Athul Dodiya, Gangavataran: After Raja RaviI Verma, 1998. Oil, acrylic and marble dust on canvas, 84 x 60 in. Photographer: Suzette Bell-Roberts

This work by Athul Dodiya entitled Gangavataran: After Raja Ravil Verma is an interpretation of one of the oldest paintings by Raja Ravi Verma Shantanu and Ganga and Marcel du Champ’s Nude descending a staircase where 2 cultures meet, 2 styles mingle and 2 attitudes exist in the same production.

Ijaz ul Hassan, Thah, 1974. Oil on canvas, 121,5 x 183,3cm. Photographer: Suzette Bell-Roberts

This artwork is entitled Thah, which literally means “estimate of depth”. Hassan, known for his protest activism, here depicts an image of a famous Bollywood actress alongside a widely distributed woodcut print of a Vietnamese woman. This poster was distributed widely as a symbol of women’s liberation and the anti-Vietnam war protest. Thah is a direct reference to the lyrics of a song by this actress.

Hangama Amiri, Bazaar, 2020. Cotton, chiffon, muslin, silk, suede, digitally woven textile, camouflage fabric, sari textile, inkjet prints on paper and canvas, paper, plastic, acrylic paint, marker, polyester, table cloth, faux leather, and found fabric, 426.72 x 792.48cm.  Photographer: Suzette Bell-Roberts

A billboard-sized mixed media tapestry by Hangama Amiri invokes her memories of childhood, growing up in Kabul under Taliban rule when shops were run by men only. Women were not allowed to be seen in public, never mind on any billboards or in any shop. After the fall of the Taliban regime, the country witnessed a huge social and cultural shift, and women began owning beauty salons and shops, so this is her depiction of the Bazaar after the fall of the Taliban.

Samsun Alam Helal, Love Studio, 2012-2013. Framed digital print and backdrop. Photographer: Suzette Bell-Roberts

In the next gallery is an installation of photographs by artist Samsun Alam Helal entitled Love Studio. The artist runs a busy commercial studio in an industrial area in Dhaka where he photographs individuals against elaborate, colourful backdrops and props so that they can symbolically live their dreams.

Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Barrelism, 1999. Found objects, acrylic paint. Photographer: Suzette Bell-Roberts

The installation entitled Barrelism by Sri Lankan artist Chandraguptha Thenuwarat depicts colourfully painted metal barrels which are “used the military as objects of obstruction for the so-called security of people and as a symbol of the ongoing racist war” in the words of the artist in an interview with Darshana Medis. He also shows a map where he has placed the barrels for tourists to either explore or avoid.

Installation view of gallery 4. Photographer: Suzette Bell-Roberts.

Baseera Khan’s lantern-like Chandelier sculptures rotate and reflect light, referencing the joyous, cross-cultural associations evoked by disco balls. Each of the patterns, though, is specific to Khan’s family’s collection of Islamic Arab and South Asian textiles and embroidery designs.

Ramesh Nithiyendra, Tsherin Sherpa; Figure with Spicky Head, 2022. Earthenware. Photographer: Suzette Bell-Roberts

For the Sri Lankan-Tamil artist Ramesh Nithiyendra, the guardian figures are a representation of the mythical creatures installed in temples and public spaces to ward off evil. The works reflect his South Asian roots and are inspired by his Hindu and Christian background.

Anant Joshi, Happy New Year, 2013. Fibreglass box, acrylic, mirror, steel, resin, industrial paint, kite paper, LED lights, ready-made objects. Photograph Suzette Bell- Roberts

Indian artist Anant Joshi traverses time by documenting a year-long calendar of emblematic moments and real-life events. The 12-television cabinet installation forms an intervention, a peep into Joshi’s life with familiar motifs, found objects, and a splash of colour and humour. It is a year-long time machine waiting to be explored and re-explored by the viewer.

Bharti Kher, Throb, 2012. Bindis on board, 2.4 x 1.8m (detailed view). Photographer: Suzette Bell-Roberts

Bharti Kher makes art from bindis mass – produced products. The common bindi is imbued with an awareness of the bindi’s symbolic meaning – derived from the Sanskrit Bindu, meaning point, drop, or dot, and regarded as the point from which all creation begins and is ultimately unified.

LN Tallur, Interference, 2019. 4k Video, television monitors, duration: 4.00 min. Photographer: Suzette Bell-Roberts

This slow-motion video captures the manual cleaning of a rug originally installed at a palace in Junagagh. The ornate textile with its geometric floral pattern was initially produced in the late 1800s by inmates imprisoned for their role as freedom fighters in the struggle for independence from colonial Great Britain. A surprising amount of dust is exhumed in this beating process, creating billowing smoke-like plumes that envelop the scene, the labourers and this cultural artefact. The work alludes to the sediment of time and a release of that which is embedded underneath the surface of our dominant narrative. The sound is slightly off register with the action creating an echoing effect not unlike that of mortars discharging in the distance, while the image of the dust clouds calls to mind a city under aerial bombardment (carpet bombing). This act of cleaning or cleansing creates an association with violent and destructive conflict places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

Ustad Abdullah, commissioned by Jeanno Gaussi, Dreams on Wheels, Kabul, 2013. Wood, acrylic paint. Photographer: Suzette Bell-Roberts

The work was painted during Gaussi’s time in Kabul. She met a painter Abdulla who learnt the profession when he was a refugee in Pakistan, where he used to paint his dreams on trucks. 

The exhibition was on view at the Sharjah Art Foundation from the 2nd of September until the 11th of December, 2022. ‘Pop South Asia: Artistic Explorations in the Popular’ is co-curated by Iftikhar Dadi, artist, and John H. Burris, Professor at Cornell University, and Roobina Karode, Director and Chief Curator of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. The exhibition will travel to the KNMA in 2023. Organised by Sharjah Art Foundation and Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), New Delhi. For more information, please visit Sharjah Art Foundation.

Suzette Bell-Roberts is Co-founder and Digital Editor of ART AFRICA magazine.

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